The most common question from teacher to student is, ‘how does that feel?’; where do you feel that?’; and ‘can you move/change that feeling (and how)?’ This is the process by which we have come to learn that science has only a partial understanding of the process of becoming more flexible, or stronger. I spent many years in graduate study at the ANU, in the Philosophy and Human Ecology Departments, and one of the main focuses of that work was trying to understand the limits to science, as a broad set of tools for understanding the natural world. And it became clear that science has little to say on those aspects of human experience that are (often pejoratively) labelled as “subjective”. Pain is a perfect example, and an individual’s experience of the many sensations of the activity of stretching is another. No amount of understanding of the biology, mechanics, or neurophysiology of stretching will actually get you into side splits. We have spent 25+ years in the close study of this most intimate and inner of human experiences, and now we understand something about it.
I will tell you what I think is happening in a moment, but a bit of background first. An area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex was once thought to only be where information from the proprioceptors was ‘recorded’. An aside: one of the difficulties of articulating dimensions of experience are the assumptions that are built into models like these (‘recording’ as a metaphor for the experience of living, or the many computer metaphors that attempt the same thing, like memory considered as ‘storage’). I argue that these metaphors are completely unsuitable for this task, and instead of shedding light on any associated question, instead obfuscate, or cover up, what’s trying to be understood. English is poor in respect of concepts and words for describing one’s interior states. And there is emerging dialogue in a field termed ‘interiority‘ that attempts to describe this, but I note that criticism has already emerged on the grounds that the very term draws part of its ‘power’ from the metaphors of architecture.
As an ex academic, I am often amused by the constant re-invention of the wheel that plagues popular writing; phenomenology (called one of the ‘Continental’ schools here in Australia, with our still-prevalent logical positivist biases) has been plumbing the depths of the interior life, as lived, for a very long time now and some remarkably clever thinkers’s work can be found with a simple search on this term.
And there’s another new/old word, too: interoception. Another term introduced by the great Sherrington (proprioception is his, too), and based on another great’s work, Pavlov, interoception has not got the traction it deserves. Only recently has this term re-emerged, and I believe the term is becoming popular among fascial researchers like Robert Schleip (“Greeeaaaat!”, for anyone who has had the pleasure of working with him!) as the term to describe the suite of sensations that comprise the inner world.
I believe one of the main impediments to this term becoming as popular as proprioception, and becoming central in research rather than peripheral, is that interoception simply cannot be studied by science and medicine the same way as rocks and plants (and that’s a big assumption, too); interoception must be experienced; it must be lived, to have any meaning at all. MRI analyses of patterns in the brain do not have much to say about the lived experience. I believe this research direction is unlikely to uncover anything really useful; direct, subjective experience: our work, Yoga, contemplation, the emerging movement schools—these are the paths that will lead to deeper understanding of the lived life. What useful information is yielded by a knowledge of citrus organic chemistry in respect of the question, ‘what does an orange taste like?’ to one who has not tasted an orange?
But back to the task at hand. Research over the past 15 years, in particular, has led to a reassessment of the role of proprioception in both range of movement (the classic ROM so loved by body work practitioners) and the experience of living, the far more interesting aspect, I argue. And our work in flexibility and movement strongly suggests two aspect of this which are not yet mainstream discourse. The first is how the body learns to balance: in a typical beginner’s MG* class, we will teach the students how to kneel upright on a Swiss ball, balancing on only the shins, then the knees. About half the class can do this the first few times they try; and the remainder cannot. The next class, though, a week later, and with no practise of any sort in between, 100% of the students can do this. We feel the mind–body, when exposed to any challenge, works on the problem in the background, in a way that is completely hidden from you, the ‘owner’. The second is that becoming flexible has little to do with Z-fibres and sarcomeres; it have everything to do with what the neural system experiences as the task is being attempted (especially when you come out of the end stretch position). The owner of the body in question feels a series of sensations—and sensations are the language of the body. Sensations are primary and some sensations, when sufficiently intense, create the experience of emotions. In the stretching world, the elephant in the room is fear.
Fear is something we talk about in the class and workshop situation, because it’s there (imagine trying to sit in side splits if you can’t, or to lift yourself off the floor into a full back bend if you can’t do that either), and because pretending fear isn’t present does not change the reality. I believe fear is experienced when the body is sufficiently challenged, because this response is ‘hard-wired’ (to use another computer metaphor) in the system. It is a major part of our inherited adaptive mechanisms. And watching a demonstration of what you will soon be doing elicits the same internal response, if you have not had the actual experience. All creatures exhibit this response. If an amoeba is stimulated with a probe in a petri dish, for example, it withdraws from the irritant. Let me put this another way: no human being has ever responded to a threat, or strong stress, by lengthening, relaxing, softening, and opening. It just does not happen—yet, paradoxically, this reflex can be unlearned. And in the unlearning, major changes take place in the world of interiority. All reflexive responses can be repositioned this way, too.
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A strong stretch is just another threat, as far as the body is concerned, unless you can actually do the intended movement—in which case, all you feel are sensations, but which have no strong emotional charge; accordingly, there is no threat, and your experience of exactly the same position is a different experience from the person who cannot. This difference turns on attribution of significance: I am certain that the sensations coming from the body can be experienced as a threat (depending on your personal history) or as a pleasant sensation (if stretching regularly is part of your personal history). And I feel that much of the confusion surrounding the most intimate of experiences, pain, turns in the individual’s capacity to separate the sensation (neural impulses) and the significance (the story we have learned to tell ourselves about it).
As a culture, we westerners know more about the external world, in scientific terms, that any culture has, as far as we know. But it seems to me we have made the mistake of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing, in the process. The main problem is one of intent, or one of direction: most systems, beginning with pre-school, are oriented to knowing more and more about the external world. But where is the balance? When are children taught how to look inside, and to understand the significance (or the non-significance) of what they feel? And where are the adults who might teach them these important things? That’s enough to get the conversation started, I feel; please add your comments below.
*MG: Monkey Gym